Getting To Know You Better: ‘New Horizons’ Embarks On First Approach To Plutonian System

New Horizons' approach image of Pluto and Charon (Credit: NASA)

NASA report their ‘New Horizons’ (NH) probe has successfully begun its first approach phase to the Plutonian system.

Due to the unprecedented nature of the NH programme, these are exciting times for planetary science, as Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, explains: ‘NASA’s first mission to distant Pluto will be humankind’s first close up view of this cold, unexplored world’. Launched in 2006, ‘New Horizons’ is tasked with exploring Pluto and its five orbiting satellites with ground breaking accuracy.

After reawakening from its final hibernation period (December 2014), the probe is currently 220 million kilometres from its primary target. Scientists will utilise this approach window for engineering purposes, and to prepare the probes imaging/telemetry system for future data transfers—a series of image captures, by the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), is planned to commence on January 25th.

These initial exchanges are critical, and will provide improved insights into the dynamics of the system as well as essential flight guidance data: ‘We need to refine our knowledge of where Pluto will be when New Horizons flies past it’, explains NASA, ‘flyby timing has to be exact, because the computer commands that will orient the spacecraft and point the science instruments are based on precisely knowing the time we pass Pluto – which these images will help us determine’.

First discovered in 1930 by Clyde W. Tombaugh, Pluto is situated approximately 4.3-7.5 billion kilometres from Earth. As a once proud member in the pantheon of solar planets, this elusive, distant, body has recently been reclassified to dwarf binary status due to a shift in the system’s known barycentre with Charon—Pluto’s largest moon.

In addition to the two usual suspects, the system contains a further four satellites: Hydra, Styx, Nix and Kerberos, which will all undergo closer observations as the mission progresses.  As NASA emphasise, more intensive studies will commence in the springtime ‘when the cameras and spectrometers aboard New Horizons can provide resolutions better than the most powerful telescopes on Earth.  Eventually, New Horizons will obtain images good enough to map Pluto and its moons better than has ever been achieved by any previous first planetary reconnaissance mission’.

Plutonian system (Credit: NASA, ESA and L. Frattare)

Plutonian system (Credit: NASA, ESA and L. Frattare)

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Paul Hattle

As a strong advocate for science and learning, I am a passionate supporter of the 'Campaign for Science and Engineering' (CaSE) Fellow of the 'Royal Astronomical Society' (RAS) Associate Member of the 'Institute of Physics' (IOP) & 'The Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators' (ISTC)

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